“No one is alone” sing the characters towards the end of Stephen Sondheim’s beloved musical “Into the Woods,” even though each has faced almost incomparable grief and suffering. And initially, it seems that Kenneth (stunningly portrayed by the extraordinary William Jackson Harper), the protagonist of Eboni Booth’s moving small-scale drama “Primary Trust,” now at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theater, could be one of those hearty souls.
Kenneth has lost his mother decades ago, during his childhood, but he has made a life in the town of Cranberry (a suburb of Rochester, gorgeously depicted by set designer Marsha Ginsburg, whose buildings look like they’re part of a model train set). He has a seemingly friendly relationship with Sam (the invaluable Jay O. Sanders), the gruff but kindly owner of the independent bookstore where Kenneth works – even if Kenneth politely declines to spend Thanksgiving dinners with Sam and his wife.
More importantly, he spends every evening – yes, every evening -- at local tiki bar Wally’s, trading chit-chat with longtime bff Bert (a fine Eric Berryman). So, like the Baker’s Wife and Cinderella in Sondheim’s musical, Kenneth is clearly a survivor. That’s nice. That’s good. But is it “right”?
Indeed, early on, we may begin to wonder: Is there actually a compelling story here? Is Booth just going to depict another tale of an ordinary life in small-town America. The answer, as one might suspect, is not exactly! (Although you might want to stop reading here if you want to learn just how).
You see, Bert exists only in Kenneth’s head – a fact of which Kenneth is well aware. He’s a coping mechanism that Kenneth developed as young boy, left alone after his mother’s untimely passing and then shunted from orphanage to foster home to foster home until he became 18. Somehow, Bert has somehow always been enough for Kenneth.
So has the menial job at the bookstore, which (like Bert’s mother) is suddenly taken from him when Sam announces his heart condition is requiring him to relocate to Arizona and sell the shop. Lost, unfocused, aimless, Kenneth retreats to Wally’s, where, in actuality, he sits alone, in a corner, night after night, and drinks way too much while having his imaginary conversations. Is there a savior in sight?
It wouldn’t initially appear to be one of the countless waiters and waitresses who robotically serve him (all played brilliantly by April Matthis), until a new employee, Corinna (also Matthis) not only takes an interest in Kenneth. She alerts him of a job opportunity at the local bank (aka Primary Trust), where he is shockingly and quickly hired by Clay (Sanders, once more superb), who is desperate for new workers.
How Kenneth’s life evolves from the moment he enters the bank is best left unrevealed. Let’s just say it’s captured with pathos, understanding and, yes, hope, by Booth, beautifully directed by Knud Adams and perfectly enacted by the cast, especially Harper (known to many from TV’s “The Good Place”) who delivers a deeply felt, often-breathtaking turn that never flinches from showing us all sides of this troubled soul. (The cast is rounded out by Luke Wygodny, a multi-talented musician who sits just off-stage and provides gorgeous accompaniment when required.)
Of course, the play is, ultimately, all about trust, which is not always easily earned: Clay’s trust in Kenneth; Kenneth’s trust in himself; and our trust in Booth that this 95-minute work will be a rewarding one. To my mind, the answer is absolutely! Of course, ultimately, you decide what’s good.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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